WSDOT release misstates support for photo-tolling

The Washington State Department of Transportation ruffled some feathers last week when it issued a press release wrongly stating that the Tacoma Narrows Bridge Citizen Advisory Committee had recommended a controversial photo-tolling plan be used on the span.

At a Nov. 17 meeting in Gig Harbor, the CAC did vote to recommend a $7 toll for drivers using the photo-tolling option but took no action on the larger question of whether photo tolling was a good idea.

To varying degrees, in fact, the CAC members expressed either skepticism or criticism of the plan.

“I want to make a very strong statement that we don’t want this system on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge,” committee member Jim Pasin told representatives from WSDOT and the state Transportation Commission who attended the meeting.

Nonetheless, WSDOT issued a media release the following morning headlined: “Citizen group recommends new photo tolling option on Tacoma Narrows Bridge.”

“I’ll be politically correct and not call this an outright lie,” Gig Harbor resident Randy Boss wrote in an e-mail response to the release. “(But) I would ask the chair of the Citizen Advisory Committee to have the Washington State Department of Transportation issue an apology and a retraction immediately. It is absolutely factually incorrect and is a bold attempt by WSDOT specifically intended to misinform the reader.”

Twenty-sixth District Rep. Larry Seaquist (D-Gig Harbor), who voted for the photo-tolling measure during last spring’s legislative session, quickly sent an e-mail to WSDOT noting, “This press release may cause us problems ... Could you folks please contact our local press and help make sure that we don’t inadvertently inflame an always-suspicious public?”

Seaquist’s objections, however, were based more on his concern that readers would believe “we’re shifting to ‘open-road tolling’ on TNB” and that the “press release also does not seem to address either the critical point that the $7 photo-tolling rate is a violator’s rate” than about WSDOT misrepresenting the advisory group’s feelings with respect to photo-tolling.

CAC Chairman Alan Weaver was more direct in his response.

“I must object to the accuracy of the Department of Transportation’s news release on Thursday of the results of the CAC’s meeting the previous evening,” he wrote. “There was nothing in the resolution specifically stating that the CAC was recommending the pay-by-mail system ... as the press release indicated. I request the Department of Transportation to retract its press release and replace it with a release which accurately reflects what occurred at the meeting.”

Boss noted that newspapers whose reporters attended the CAC meeting —including the Port Orchard Independent — published stories that did not suggest the committee had signed off on photo-tolling.

However, at least one major source, the Seattle-Post Intelligencer, did base its coverage heavily on the incorrect press release, posting a story to its website headlined, “Panel recommends camera tolling on Tacoma bridge.”

“This is exactly what the DOT envisioned when they sent out their ‘misleading’ press release yesterday,” Boss said. “Larry Lange, a well-respected writer for the Seattle P-I, no doubt sitting home in his underwear, reads the DOT press pelease and writes his own story.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “Larry never attended any of the four meetings between the DOT and the CAC and has no clue as to what went on save for this press release. He then takes it in himself to ‘inform’ his readers, many of whom will believe these lies.”

WSDOT finally issued a reworded press release on Nov. 19 — more than a full day after the original release — but did not apologize for its earlier misinformation.

The photo-tolling plan would remove tollbooths from the bridge and replace them with high-speed cameras that would take a picture of a vehicle’s license plate and send the registered owner a bill in the mail.

Vehicles with a Good to Go transponder on their windshield would pay the same $4 toll they do now, but the advisory committee recommended a $7 toll for photo-toll users in order to discourage use of that option and to assure assure the program generates enough revenue to pay for the administrative costs associated with it.

The CAC did not issue a recommendation about the wisdom of the plan because the Legislature had already approved it and WSDOT has made clear it intends to adopt it statewide.

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